Tuesday, March 7, 2017

A good death

          I just returned from a diagnostic mammogram after a routine film showed a lump in one of my breasts.   While I've been down this road before, all weekend long I still worried about what the future might hold.  I silently reminded myself of the summer of 2012 when I was faced with the same situation, and that the outcome was favorable.  Still, I couldn't help but wonder if my good luck had finally run out and this time around, I would be faced with a biopsy, possible mastectomy, and ongoing treatment.  
          Yet, I also remembered that no matter what might happen...whether I was told I had cancer or not...I would be okay, for there's never been a time in my life when I couldn't take care of myself.  Then and now, I'm infinitely thankful for friends who supported me.   For the incredible people at ProMedica Breast Care.  For the lab technician, Tamara, who took care of me last week, and Kristen, who did the follow-up films this morning and moments later, delivered the good news that I'm just fine.
       In the end, I feel as though spring has come a little early to my home in the Heartland, as I honor the fact that rebirth often begins with a good death.

"A Good Death"

It's well past midnight and I still can't sleep.  This morning, after a month of breast pain and discharge, after a month of worrying and wondering, I finally had a mammogram.  All the menopause books I’ve read said not to worry if I have breast pain.  Not to worry if I have discharge.  It’s all a normal process of hormonal shifting. 
Unless the issues are unilateral…which, naturally, mine are. 
For almost a month, my left breast has felt different and I’m scared.  But not scared enough to be paralyzed by my fear.  So this morning I did something about it.  Knowledge is power, but the results won't be available until tomorrow.  And today I learned the vital lesson of never asking the lab tech, "What do you think?"
"Does your family have a history of breast cancer?" she replied, gazing at the screen.
"No...not that I know of," I told her.
"Well, this could be something," she said, pointing to a cloudy image on my left breast.  "But I can't say for certain.  The radiologist will take a look and we'll let you know."
I haven't had a mammogram since I turned thirty, which was sixteen years ago when I had health insurance that covered such things.  Now, even though I have great independent coverage, I still have a deductible to pay.  I haven't gotten one sooner because I've been fine...or so I thought.  I do monthly self-exams and started going to the doctor annually once I accepted the fact that menopause is right around the corner.  Last year, she said everything looked good.  Still, I never banked on breast pain, discharge, and the fear of what they might mean. 
For the past few years, it's always the left side of my body that’s been a challenge.  That Baker's cyst behind my left knee after the car accident.  The left eye that had a spot requiring special testing.  And now my left breast hurts and is discharging fluid that looks like partially dried milk.  In metaphysics, the left side represents the past, the mother, the receptive side of who I am and what I want to become.  It's my body's way of reminding me that I desperately need to let go of the old tapes…the old ways of being. 
Maybe that's why my left side is speaking so loudly, and now it's finally gotten my attention.  I'm not sure if everything outside of me reflects my inner self, but I do take full responsibility for what is personal to me.  What I create.  How I respond.  I've been in this place of waiting for so long.  Waiting for the right publisher.  Waiting for financial security.  I don't need the experience of waiting anymore.  I need the experience of that for which I've been waiting...NOW!
Tossing and turning, I try everything to help me get to sleep.  Reading a book.  Drinking a glass of warm soy milk.  Writing in my journal.  Nothing helps.  Nothing takes away the fear I feel deep inside. 
I think of all the work I've done this past year.  All the work Kelly's done to pitch A Tapestry of Truth.  While editors all over New York City praise my writing style, the book has yet to find the right publishing house.  For over a year, I've lived with hopeful anticipation that is always met with immediate rejection.  Kelly keeps my spirits up, but it's hard to see other books on the shelves at the store and know that my work is just as good.  Just as worthy of being published. 
And I'm prolific, if nothing else, having finished writing Common Threads last month.  Squirreling around in my head for plot points yielded some long-buried nuts and I'm thankful for the mental housecleaning.  Still, I’m curious to see if I can write a memoir.  Can I allow myself to explore something that real?  Well, what I'm feeling now is certainly real...and I don't much like it.
But then again, I didn't much like most of what happened to me in the first half of my life.  I wonder if that's all I'll ever have...a few peaceful moments sandwiched in-between a host of horrible illnesses, horrifying relationships, and the horrific challenges of financial stress.
I was just getting back on my feet, too.  Now I wonder, Can I accept the loss of my mother and the loss of motherhood without having to die?
My inner drama queen is instantly silenced by the fact that for over a year I had lived with the fear of imminent death when the drug dealers and their arsenal of handguns haunted the duplex next door.  If I do have cancer, it's not an imminent death.  I will deal with it.  I will get treatment. 
I will survive.
So I turn off the light and fall asleep, believing that no matter what happens, I will remember Ralph Waldo Emerson's quote that's posted on my bathroom mirror:  "All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen."

In the summer of 2012 I was knee-deep in purge mode.  Every year I spend hours in the basement, cleaning and gleaning that which I no longer need.  Since my return from California, I have little to sift, but I still make piles to donate.  Piles to give away to friends.  It’s a cathartic ritual I annually summon in the weeks before my birthday in order to start my solar New Year fresh and renewed.
But in 2012 I wasn’t purging tangibles.  I was ridding myself of emotional baggage I had hauled across the country and then back again.  For in the back of my mind, I always thought I would one day return to Esalen.   Return for a visit or even longer if the Garden Manager’s job was available.  Return to finish what I had started.  Return to create new beginnings.
In my heart of hearts, I dreamed of selling my novels so that I’d have the means to buy (or at least rent) my own place in Big Sur.  I could come to work part-time in the garden, soak in the tubs, and then leave at the end of the day. 
The fantasy had faded over time, but it never fully diminished.  In the months leading up to the mammogram, I found myself revisiting Esalen in my journals.  In photo albums.  In dreams.  I wrote a novel about a young woman abandoned by her parents who eventually ends up living in an Esalen-esque setting.  And although the characters and plot lines in my novels are fictitious, somehow, I always end up writing a spiritual autobiography. 
By early September Common Threads was finished and I sent it to Kelly.  That night I wrote in my journal about the loneliness I felt at the end of writing a book:  No one really understands how momentous this is…no one’s been a witness to this unfurling.  Maybe that’s how it is for a lot of writers.  Many of us embody the sound of one hand clapping.
But not everything in my literary life was silent.
By this time, Kelly had been pitching A Tapestry of Truth for nearly a year, but had not found the right editorial match.  Even though I was disappointed by the rejections, they didn’t have the same punch as being dismissed for years by literary agents.  At least I was having my work shown to publishing houses.  At least I had that.
One day not long after my birthday, Kelly forwarded me emails from editors who praised my writing style, but had passed on the novel.  It was heartening to read their positive comments and compliments.  It was worth all the years of waiting to be recognized for the time and energy I had put into honing my skills as a novelist.  The years of rewrites and edits.  All the late nights in my office.  All the ink and paper that had gone into submissions.
Still, the whole process made me wonder if I needed to let go of my dream of publishing.  By then I knew I wouldn’t have a baby.  I had all but given up on having a healthy relationship.  Was I going to have to surrender this one, too? 
Pondering this question while running errands, I had a quiet conversation with God.  “I’ve worked my ass off for this, You know,” I said out loud.  “I really want it.  Am I ever going to get published?”
In that moment, I glanced to the right as a truck zoomed past.  The speeding driver was halted at the next red light and as I rolled to a stop, I saw his license plate. 
NOT YET,” it said.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I laughed, “Well, thanks for that, God.  At least it didn’t say, “NO!”
  
A week later, I was anxiously awaiting the results of the mammogram.  Sleep didn’t come easily.  I lay in dread, thinking about the possibility of having cancer in my left breast, the one closest to my heart.  And I realized that I had been keeping my heart closed for a long time.  Afraid of hoping.  Afraid of setting myself up for failure.  Afraid of repeating the same old patterns.  I resisted being in the world.  Resisted asking for the recognition I wanted. 
The love I needed. 
And yet, I was loved.  I had Lisa and the Sharmas and Barb.  I had my yoga students and neighbors and friends.  No matter what the tests results were, I knew I would be able to take care of myself.  And I would have all the love and support I might need.
That night I had a dream where I was standing at a distance, looking at a charming white house with a wrap-around porch.  I saw an old woman peacefully sitting in a rocking chair.  A young couple came out and covered her with a quilt asking, “Do you need anything, Katie?”
It was then that I realized the old woman was me.  Stepping closer, I felt a presence by my side…an angel or a spirit.  “That is you, Katie,” she said.
It was a beautiful sunny day.  A breeze blew across the porch.  The wind chimes sang in harmony with the rustling leaves.  I saw my older face, etched with lines.  My hair, white as snow.  My lips, rose red.  My eyes, still brown and bright.
Leaning closer, I was suddenly aware that this old woman, this version of me, was going to die.
“See how she relaxes into it?” the angel whispered in my ear.
One moment later, the woman was gone.
“Is it hard to die?” I asked the angel.  
“Easier than taking a breath,” she whispered.
Then both she and the dream vanished.

The next morning my cell phone rang.  The test results were in.  I was fine.  No cancer.  Everything was normal.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I went outside to sit on my front porch that overlooks the lush and lovely gardens which have been both my sanctuary and my salvation.
I took a deep breath.   I let it out.  
With that one breath, I died to the life I had wanted, so that I finally could enter a new one...a life that has been waiting for me with open arms.  In that moment, I let go of needing to be tethered to dreams which would never come true...a life I could never experience.  At last, I had finally crossed the vast sea of a tumultuous past and landed on an empty shore...a blank canvas of luminous existence.
I now see how my novels are infinitely about mothers and daughters in all varieties -- abortions and miscarriages, births and adoptions, unintentional abandoners and stalwart protectors.   
And I have symbolically embodied them all. 
The writing of each novel has allowed me to more fully understand all of the women in my life.  My mother and my sisters.  My grandmother and my aunts.  My friends and even those who seemed like adversaries.  For each one has been a reflection through which I have seen different aspects of myself. 
The breast pain is still intermittent and I've also experienced bouts of tachycardia similar to the one I had on Thanksgiving of 2010.  My body continues to speak clearly and I've learned how to listen carefully, responding with compassion and understanding.  For the past year I've encountered losses in many areas of my life and am not really comfortable floating in the hollow spaces left behind.  Yet through it all I've once again cycled around to the question I always ask when my life is in flux and I'm not sure what to do or where to turn:  What kind of woman do I want to be now?
In the process of discovering the answer, I've read articles on financially successful writers, on what readers crave in an ever-changing culture, on what's popular and how to make myself stand out enough to garner new literary representation.  The word branding has come up again and again, not only in terms of writing style, but in business savvy as well. To be slick and have a hook is paramount. 
While I'm reticent to admit I fit into any one category, I'm clear that I'm developing a style that's ever evolving.  When Kelly was pitching my work to publishing houses, she labeled me as a commercial fiction writer, explaining that my novels would appeal to a wide variety of tastes and interests.  It sounded good to me, but I still scratched my head when she sent my work to a popular romance book publisher.  And then I thanked the gods they rejected me...twice.
Six months later, Kelly changed gears and shifted my work into the literary fiction category.  There was some serious interest from a couple of editors, but in the end they all passed.  Nevertheless, they all praised my writing style, but said my novels weren't enticing enough for them to offer me a contract.  So last April, after three years of rewriting and editing, of trial and error, of hopeful anticipation followed by rejection, I made the difficult choice to end my contract with Kelly. 
In less than six months, I self-published the first edition of this memoir and two novels.  Then I changed the title of Turtle Island to A Tapestry of Truth and returned it to its original premise.  By June it was self-published along with the latest book in the series, Common Threads.  This past summer I sketched out plans for a children's book based on the darling fairy garden I created in my front yard.  I honed and edited three yoga books for kids and sifted through my notes for a non-fiction book I'll be writing in 2017 called Growing the Lotus which will illustrate the long and lovely journey I've been taking with my yoga students since 2011.  This fall I've been researching and outlining a novel that is unlike anything I've written before and it's been a daunting process, but not without its gifts of grace.  
Recently I was lamenting to my neighbor that, after twenty years of working toward greater awareness, I thought the process would get easier.
Tyler shook his head.  "It only gets deeper."
Which is the cardinal reason why my heart is once again calling for my attention. 
I've always known I'm unbrandable.  I can't be the kind of writer who figures out what the public wants and then carves out my niche in the genre.  I can't spend any more time being angry or frustrated that I've not been rewarded with a publishing contract after all the time and energy I've spent trying to become a better writer.  I simply need to write for myself.  For the stories that want to be born through my imagination.  For the characters who weave their way through the creative process and always reveal inherent lessons that have been slumbering in my subconscious.  Only then will I find the success of having written from the heart of who I am, not a facsimile of what others demand or desire.
Like anything that grows, I will simply become more of who I am meant to be.  What comes next is unknowable, yet ultimately freeing.  And in that open space, my heart can finally be at peace.
Through it all, may I continue to be blessed with inspiration and endless opportunities. 

And may I continue to keep walking forward on the open road before me.